Review: “No Better Time: The Brief, Remarkable Life of Danny Lewin …” By Molly Knight Raskin

Via NetGalley, I received a copy of this galley from Perseus Books Group / Da Capo Press. While I received it at no cost to myself, I am under no obligation to give a positive review.

That said, I loved loved loved this book.

I imagine that most people outside of computer geekdom are probably not familiar with Danny Lewin or Akamai Technologies. But if you enjoy quick-loading websites with video streaming that doesn’t constantly lag, or if you are able to hit CNN and get regular updates when a huge breaking story hits, then you have Lewin to thank.

The story starts with Lewin as a gifted teenager, raised in a Jewish family. While he is in high school, Lewin’s family moves to Israel, where Lewin finishes his secondary education. Following high school, he tries out and qualifies for the most elite group in the Israeli special forces. The experiences he gains serves him well throughout his life, especially in the tenacity, determination and endurance necessary to excel.

Eventually Lewin takes a leave from the military to follow his educational dream: a post-graduate stint at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There Lewin finds an advisor and mentor in Tom Leighton, one of his instructors at MIT. Lewin is quickly identified as someone who has a lot of potential and ability, and people begin expecting great things from Lewin.

The roots of Akamai Technologies began when Lewin wanted to enter a contest at MIT for startup business ideas, primarily because he and his family desperately needed the cash prize to survive. Lewin’s concept was to tackle a huge issue on the Internet at that time: speed of delivery for content. When something became suddenly popular or breaking news hit the web, servers often buckled and crashed under the load. Lewin’s idea was simple in concept: devise a set of algorithms to distribute the load to cached copies of popular websites located on servers spread out over the country and, eventually, the world.

There begins the majority of the story, talking about how Akamai came to be, their meteoric rise and eventual leveling out with the crash on NASDAQ.

The book also covers Lewin’s eventual death, likely as the first victim of 9/11. Based on reports from flight attendants during the initial part of the hijacking of the first plane, Lewin was killed trying to stop one of the hijackers.

Which of course, leads to one of the big questions in the book: Can Akamai handle the huge media crush during and following 9/11, especially when they are still coming to grips with the loss of one of their founders?

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It was even more enjoyable because I’m not only a math geek, I’ve been involved in computers since I was nine (more than 35 years). But even if that wasn’t the case, it was still a great story about a young man who who driven from his teenage years to make a difference, which he certainly did in his 31 years.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)


Review: “Brave Genius” By Sean B. Carroll

Crown Publishing provided me a copy of this eGalley, via NetGalley, for the purposes of reading and reviewing it. Although it was provided to me at no cost, I am under no obligation to provide a positive review.

Before I get started, let me say this is an epic book. It’s 576 pages of (as my sixteen year old son would say) “beefy” reading. The amount of research required to produce this tome must have been extensive, and for that I commend Carroll. Unfortunately, I could only read 10-20 pages at a time before getting bogged down in details and having to set it aside.

On the surface, this looks like a fascinating story: two famous Frenchman, Albert Camus and Jacques Monod, have their paths cross during the French Resistance against the Nazi Germany regime of World War II. Each has a completely different background and career, and yet they strike up a friendship that lasts well beyond World War II until Camus’s untimely death in 1960.

While I had only a passing familiarity with Monod prior to reading this book, I have been a fan of Camus’s writing for years. It was fascinating to read the path each person took on their way to receiving a Nobel Prize in their respective fields.

My biggest complaint about this book is it spends far too much time on the details surrounding the lives of Camus and Monod. Sure, the strategies the Nazis employed for invading France are fascinating and set in motion the Resistance effort that led to Camus and Monod meeting, but the details are too far removed from the actions of the men themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I am fascinated with World War II and Nazi Germany in particular, but that’s not what I was hoping for or expecting from this book.

The same thing applies later when the author spends a significant amount of time describing the research leading up to Monod’s Nobel Prize. You can see that Carroll’s training as a biologist shines through, as he is obviously passionate about Monod and his work. But it does seem to become unwieldy at times.

In a nutshell, it seems this book doesn’t really have a clearly defined identity. Is it a biography of Camus and Monod? Historical text? Biology text? While Carroll’s details and research are undoubtedly meticulous, the book could have been cut by 150 or more pages and still be an outstanding recording of these men’s lives. As it is, it gets bogged down under its own weight.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Review: “Wrestling With The Devil” By Tonya Russo Hamilton & Antonio Russo

Through NetGalley, I was provided a copy of this book by Gemelli Press for the purposes of reading and review it. While it was provided to me at no cost, I am under no obligation to provide a positive review.

This book was done in a very relaxed narrative style with Hamilton telling the story of her father in his voice. I am a fan of that method, as it doesn’t feel as stilted as some memoirs or biographies.

Born in Italy to an Italian father and a mother with dual American and Italian citizenship, Russo was sent to America when he was ten to live family. Since he was born to a mother with American citizenship, his parents wanted him to establish his permanent American citizenship, and at the time he had to live in the United States for five years prior to his eighteenth birthday.

The trials Russo experiences during the trip to America by boat are enough to make you want to throttle the “family friend” who was supposed to look out for him, but essentially ignored Russo for the duration of the trip. For the first few months in America, Russo is bounced from family to family as each is encumbered with feeding, housing and clothing an extra mouth in post-World War II New York. Eventually, Russo ends up in Portland, Oregon, with an uncle, where he lives for several years.

A few years later, Russo’s father, mother, brother and sister join him, and the family is reunited in Portland. However, Russo has already on a rough road.

Knowing very little English when he arrived in America, Russo starts behind in his schoolwork and is behind throughout his school years. As a consequence, Russo ends up being a teen who’s not afraid to use his fists to solve a problem.

Being very athletic and having tried many sports, Russo eventually gets involved with wrestling in high school, and a new passion and outlet is found for him. Whenever times are hard and Russo is battling emotional or mental demons, complete exhaustion on the mats is his escape. Not only that, but he develops an aptitude for the sport, competing very well at the high school level.

After graduation, because his grades were average at best and college was not an option, Russo begins working in a local meat market, eventually earning journeyman status. Along the way, Russo’s younger brother Pete competes exceptionally well in high school wrestling, earning a scholarship at Arizona State University.

Once in college, Pete begins working on his coach, encouraging him to give Russo a chance at a scholarship. The coach invites Russo to campus, where he makes the team.

Will Russo do well in college since he struggled in high school? How will he do in competition? Is there anything waiting for him when his wrestling career is over? I guess you’ll just have to read the book to find out.

I really enjoyed this story since I love reading stories about people facing challenges and trying to overcome them. While I’m not a big wrestling fan, the author does a good job of not getting too heavy in terminology and details of specific matches, but provides at least enough to tell the story effectively. Plus, as I noted earlier, the relaxed narrative tone makes this an easy, smooth read.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

Review: “What’s So Funny” By Tim Conway With Jane Scovell

Howard Books provided me a copy of this book via NetGalley for the purpose of reading and reviewing it. While it was provided to me at no cost, I am under no obligation to provide a positive review. This is an advance copy of the book, so the contents may be changed by the time the book is actually published.

Full disclosure first: Tim Conway is one of my favorite comedians. Right up there with Robin Williams, Jonathan Winters and the other great improv comedians, Conway stands as one of the best ever. His ability to go completely off the rails while maintaining a straight face is legendary. Plus, he practiced clean humor, which is not so common these days. So I was likely predisposed to liking this book.

That said, I did like it. A lot. 🙂

The book covers Conway’s almost eighty years, even talking about how his mom and dad met. It was a little strange hearing him refer to his parents by their first names, but it worked.

We learn early on that Conway (Born Thomas Daniel and going by Toma or Tom in his youth) was destined to be a comedian, primarily because of his parents. His father was an Irish immigrant and his mother was American-born of Romanian parents. Somehow the two managed to meet and fall in love without Dan being able to speak Romanian or Sofia being able to speak much English.

To say his father was off-beat would be a definite understatement. While Tim certainly had the makeup to be a great comedian on his own, he had to be influenced by his dad’s sense of humor. There are too many examples to list, but the one that stuck with me was when the Conways were at home and a tornado passed overhead. After it passed, Tim and his father went outside to survey the damage. Taking a look at the downed trees and a neighboring house missing its roof, Dan Conway simply shook his head and said, “Those damn kids.”

Along the way, we learned how Tim tried and failed as a jockey racing horses, even though the love of horses followed him throughout his life. We also are witness to Tim learning the hard way that his Army superiors were not impressed with his humor.

Once he reached his show business days, Tim changed his name from Tom Conway at the behest of Steve Allen, who suggested there might be confusion because of another actor by the same name already having some repute.

Other than the discussion of Conway’s childhood and teenage years, my favorite part had to be, no surprise, the sections about Carol Burnett, her show, and Conway’s decades of tormenting Harvey Korman. I grew up watching those three on The Carol Burnett Show, and they all influenced my sense of humor. I learned to appreciate the ability to improvise and make those around me laugh. Conway also reveals that although he was involved in almost all of the show’s 11 years, he was only a cast member the last four. The first seven years had him appearing quite regularly, but just as a guest.

Conway spends time discussing some of the greats he worked with through the years, and it was pure gold: Jonathan Winters. Bob Newhart. Don Knotts. Steve Allen. Dick Martin. Vicki Lawrence. So many wonderful funny people.

Bottom line is, if you’re a fan of Tim Conway, The Carol Burnett Show, or just show business in general, you will absolutely love this book. It’s told in a very casual tone, just like you’re sitting down with Conway in his living room, listening to him talk about “the good ol’ days”.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

Review: “Bird: The Life And Music Of Charlie Parker” By Chuck Haddix

Via NetGalley, I received a copy of this book from University of Illinois Press for the purposes of reading and reviewing it. Note this book is not scheduled for publication until September 16, 2013, so this should be considered a review of an advanced copy, not a finished product.

So much has been written about Charlie Parker, it would seem that unless some previously undiscovered diary maintained by The Bird shows up, there can’t be much more to tell. I’ve read several books about Parker, perused many outstanding online sites dedicated to him, listened to his music literally for decades, and generally have been a fan for some time. So with that in mind, I decided to approach this book as though I knew nothing about Parker other than his music. It didn’t seem fair to penalize the author for my prior readings.

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the way this book was put together. It covers not just Bird’s life, but the life of his parents leading up to and following his birth. It certainly pulls no punches, but at the same time was a fair account of the enigma that was Charlie Parker. At times he was unfailingly kind to others, telling up-and-coming musicians to avoid drugs (as Parker himself had been addicted to heroin, originally for pain management, since a car accident in his teens) and to do as he says, not as he does. Other times, he is inexplicably distant and cold, and not always are the drugs to blame.

As a fan of his music, I really loved reading about the evolution of Parker’s style as well as his affiliation and, sadly, alienation of his musical peers. I was also left with a sense of wonder at how, when the rubber met the road, Parker could create incredible music, even when high or drunk. I’m left to wonder whether he would have been the same musician and creative genius without his addiction or, in some bizarre way, it helped define who he was musically.

The only area I wish Haddix had delved into more was the months or years following Parker’s death and maybe a glance at what happened to his wives and children.

I definitely recommend this book as a great source for fans of Parker, music, and biographies in general. The bibliography and end notes are worth gold by themselves.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)